In that great two-point conversion in the sky there will no doubt be an NCAA football playoff. Until then, however, there will only be the postseason bowl games. These attractions are a lot of fun, of course, and certainly American, but the trouble with them is that only infrequently do they help determine a true national champion. The games in the Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Gator and Rose bowls this time around are good cases in point. They resemble the interesting intersectional contests that schools for years have been scheduling in September or early October, before they get into their conference games. Each one might well turn into a rouser, diverting millions from their holiday hangovers, but none of them figure to settle anything more important than which school has the prettiest cheerleaders (see cover).
There should be a lot of gaudy offenses, to be sure, devised for such gifted players as Florida's Steve Spurrier, Purdue's Bob Griese, Georgia Tech's Lenny Snow, Syracuse's Floyd Little, SMU's Jerry Levias, Alabama's Ken Stabler and Nebraska's Harry Wilson, among many others, who will be on display for the 370,000 ticket-holders and the 50 million expected to watch on television. But only one of the five major games, the Sugar Bowl, can have any serious impact on the national scene.
In New Orleans, Alabama, the only major undefeated, untied team in America, will make a desperate effort to grab a share of the national championship smorgasbord that is spread out every season. Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide meets Nebraska, a 9-1 team and champion of the Big Eight, and, should there be any doubt about it, the Tide sought out the Cornhuskers for the very purpose of achieving a No. 1 ranking.
"Usually we pick the place," says Bryant, "but this time we picked the team. Notre Dame doesn't go to bowls, so Nebraska was the best team we could meet."
There are almost as many national championship awards as there are conferences—four notable ones, in fact. But three of them have escaped Alabama. The AP and UPI have already crowned Notre Dame, and the Hall of Fame Foundation has awarded a co-championship to the Irish and Michigan State, the two teams which played a 10-10 standoff in what was billed as the game of the century and should have encouraged someone from Kansas State, Vanderbilt or Lehigh to insist, "Two tie, all tie."
The national title still to be given out is that of the Football Writers Association of America, a sensible organization that has always waited until after the bowl games to name its winner. Should Alabama defeat Nebraska, which is no foregone conclusion, it would have a strong case. It would not only have an 11-0 record to put up against the 9-0-1 of Notre Dame and Michigan State, it would have whipped more foes who had winning records than any other team in the country—six, for example, to Notre Dame's four.
Right down to the New Orleans kickoff, The Bear is fighting every way he can for his fourth No. 1 trophy because, among other things, he says, "this is a better team than the last two of ours that won it."
Says Bryant, "We've done everything that was asked of us. So we won all our games. It was said nobody had ever beaten Tennessee, Mississippi and LSU in the same season, and we did that. We came from 10 points down against Tennessee and didn't go for a tie. We went for a win and got it."
The Tennessee game gave Bryant the opportunity to drawl one of the best remarks of his lifetime. The Tide won, all right, 11-10, at Knoxville, overtaking what was certainly the best 7-3 team in the country. But the Vols missed a field goal in the last 16 seconds from Alabama's 11-yard line. Asked later what he would have done if the ball had been booted straight, Bryant said, "Blocked it."
While the Sugar Bowl will have the most significance, the Rose Bowl on this occasion will have the least, or none. The teams that should be playing are Michigan State and UCLA, a pairing that would have as much bearing on No. 1 as Alabama-Nebraska, but instead the Pasadena sponsors were forced to be content with Purdue and USC. The Big Ten has a hypocritical rule that prevents a champion from returning to California. Which accounts for Purdue's presence. To further weaken the attraction, the Pacific Coast voted for USC, then 7-2, to be the host team over 9-1 UCLA, even though the Bruins defeated the Trojans 14-7 and even though the selectors knew that a large, unspecified number of Trojans would be ineligible to play in a bowl. Ignoring the second consideration, the Pacific Eight reasoned that Southern California had played one more conference game than UCLA and therefore was one game better. After its selection USC promptly lost to angry Notre Dame 51-0 and announced that nine players, including two starters, would not play in the bowl.